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  • From Our Journals

One Ventilator Too Few?

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. As new blood filled our young patient’s veins, her breathing be­came regular and her pulse full. She was so far gone I would not have expected her to recover consciousness for a day, if at all, but within an hour, she began to wake up. We removed the breathing tube a couple of hours later— no ventilator ever needed. 

As life-sustaining technology be­comes more widely available in for­tunate parts of the developing world, benefits come with complications. The temptation is to focus on the thing—the ventilator itself—as the crucial element and press to buy more, mistaking the problem for one of resource scarcity only. But we need a culturally relevant ethical frame­work to guide the use and withdrawal of ventilators and similar life-sustaining tools. Resource scarcity is only part of the problem. Buying additional ventila­tors only defers allocation decisions and entirely fails to address end-of-life suf­fering. It is unsustainable in Rwanda; it is a dubious solution anywhere. The intangible need for an ethical frame­work hides beneath apparent scarcity and, when this need is not addressed and luck runs out, one salvageable pa­tient can die for want of a ventilator that serves only to prolong the suffering of another.

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